God knows what this says about me, but I'm starting to get a lot of mileage out of the word "pornotopia".

Pornotopia is a phrase coined by Steven Marcus in his book The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England to describe the strange parallel universe Victorian pornography - and, indeed, most pornography - takes place in. Unlike a utopia or a dystopia, pornotopia may not be a conscious effort at world-building. It could simply be the inadvertently surreal effect of a narrative where all characters have to be willing to have sex with each other all the time because of the constraints of the genre. What Peter Strickland's The Duke of Burgundy is about is this; what happens in a pornotopia once the porno film stops shooting?

The Duke of Burgundy feels as though, a long time ago, someone made a pornographic film and then left the universe they created alone once they'd finished. Somehow, without its creator, the pornotopia grew and mutated, like a sneeze on a petri dish. Perhaps the pornographic film was about an all-woman universe where Evelyn, played by the doe-eyed, ravishing Chiara D'Anna, explored her sexuality as a lesbian and a submissive. Perhaps it was set against the backdrop of academia, and it used butterfly collections as an erotic metaphor in the manner of Daisies or The Collector.

This film does not exist (although Strickland has his inspirations, which I'll discuss later). But if you imagine a caption at the start of Strickland's film reading "Ten years later", it starts to make a perverse sort of sense. The pornotopia is now a real society, developed yet still constrained by the absurd rules of the genre. The Duke of Burgundy takes place in an all-female universe where BDSM is the default form of sexual expression. That butterfly metaphor from the earlier film I imagined has now rampaged out of control, to the point where the currency of this world is rare insect species, and the characters relax by going to an entomology lecture or listening to a vinyl recording of a mole cricket's mating call.

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So it's quite odd. But as a portrait of a relationship it's also intensely funny and tender. The fundamental question of The Duke of Burgundy is this: what happens if you're living in a pornotopia and you put your back out moving furniture? This continual interplay of the bizarre and the banal allows Strickland to explore the dilemmas of a long-term relationship from the inside-out, to explore mundane domestic life in a way that is surreal and magical and sensual, but never mundane.

Whereas my imaginary early porn film would focus on Evelyn as a promiscuous ingenue, by now she's a grown woman in a committed monogamous relationship with Cynthia, played by the film's star name, Sidse Babett Knudsen. Knudsen is best-known to global audiences for her performance in the Danish political drama Borgen, but her roots are in comedy, and this film will be a revelation to a lot of people simply because it shows Knudsen's comic talent. From her faltering attempts at improvising dominant dialogue to her 'off-duty' uniform of frumpy pyjamas and woolly socks, Knudsen makes Cynthia very funny and relatable. She only wants to make her lover happy - but how do you do that when your lover finds you most attractive when you're being cold and unsentimental?

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The Duke of Burgundy is anti-pornography. I don't mean that politically, I mean it in the same way that people call a particular brand of ultra-deadpan, postmodern, trope-aware comedy "anti-comedy". It offers all of the satisfactions of comedy while launching a major assault on the form. Likewise, whereas The Duke of Burgundy is an extremely sensual film it sources its most lustrous images in odd places, like the glistening skins of the soap bubbles Evelyn watches as she washes Cynthia's underwear.

She does this job deliberately badly to give Cynthia a reason to punish her, but the actual scenes of sex and humiliation are something different; an excuse for deadpan comedy, or tantalisingly not-quite-onscreen, or shown in a blur of visual abstraction that offers all of the tactility of sex without actually depicting it. (Strickland is a keen student of avant-garde video art, and can integrate the textures of a film-maker like Stan Brakhage or Peter Tscherkassky into a narrative movie with great skill)

Strickland did a short but insightful interview with AfterEllen here, where he talked about the challenges of making a serious lesbian romance with a strong sexual element as a male director. The film's inspiration was an offer to remake Lorna the Exorcist, a 1970s film by the madly prolific exploitation director Jesus Franco, and part of the appeal for Strickland was that the film's reference points were so far away from any kind of respectable film canon.

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I haven't seen much of Franco's work - it strikes me as the sort of thing that's probably more rewarding to read about than watch. Whereas Franco films like Vampyros Lesbos are unquestionably male fantasies of lesbianism - he's never been mistaken for Barbara Hammer, put it that way - they do have a queer following, and I think these films do gain a sort of emotional resonance from the generations of people who've watched them and had a sort of epiphany, realising that this is what they're into. (For me, it was all those crap, heavily staged late-night documentaries on TV that painted bisexual life as a non-stop whirl of clubs and orgies. Everything's a lie, isn't it?)

One particularly delightful thing about The Duke of Burgundy is that it does manage to incorporate the male-gaze aspects of Franco's camerawork in a way that fits within a queer film for primarily queer audiences. The cruder parts of 1970s pornography only appear during points where the relationship is under stress - the pans up and down actresses' bodies are slowed down and overlaid with Cat's Eyes' haunting score until they become quite sinister, and wait until you see what Strickland does with Franco's signature shot, the shameless zoom into the crotch. The actual loving sex scenes, as noted before, are like pure emotion put on film, feelings so powerful they dissolve the image.

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One of my favourite scenes is also the only one that marries the camera's gaze to any character's gaze. There is, of course, no male gaze in this world because there are no males. (The title refers to one of Cynthia's butterflies) Every character is either a lesbian domme or a lesbian sub, a rule which Strickland is pleasingly intractable about. On the one hand, that means the slender, glamorous likes of Evelyn and The Carpenter, played unforgettably by Fatma Mohamed in a St. Vincent wig and Jack the Ripper cape. On the other, it means their stout, elderly neighbour Lorna also has this kind of sex life, and Strickland here casts Franco regular Monica Swinn to make this extra-textually true.

The scene involving gaze is a scene where Evelyn spies - perhaps as part of their role-play, it's not quite clear - on Cynthia changing. Strickland starts this scene with a great shot of Evelyn in a darkened room, the only hint of colour being the vaginal slit of orange fireplace light shining on her eyeball out of the keyhole to Cynthia's room. And what she looks at - what we look at every time Strickland needs Cynthia to be seen in a sexual light - are all the things that make the definitely sexy Knudsen impossible to imagine in a Hollywood movie about sex; her veiny hands, the wrinkled corners of her mouth, the width of the top of her thighs.

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I loved this for the light it casts on a later, shorter scene of Cynthia preparing to dominate Evelyn, gasping for air as she tries to squeeze herself into a corset you suspect she bought a long time ago. In another film the interplay between these two shots could have been played for cruel humour, but Strickland draws a more reassuring connection between them; Cynthia should know that the parts of herself she struggles to conceal and pack away are the parts that drive Evelyn wild. The film leaves you feeling optimistic that one day she will learn this. Scrape away the kink and the weirdness and the off-centre humour, and The Duke of Burgundy is ultimately a film for romantics.